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Third grade retention policies — May 2019


Could you provide research on third grade retention policies?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on third grade retention policies. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Figlio, D. N., & Ozek, U. (2019). An extra year to learn English? Early grade retention and the human capital development of English learners. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In this study, we use microdata from 12 Florida county-level school districts and a regression discontinuity design to examine the effects of early grade retention on the short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes of English learners. We find that retention in the third-grade substantially improves the English skills of these students, reducing the time to proficiency by half and decreasing the likelihood of taking a remedial English course in middle school by one-third. Grade retention also roughly doubles the likelihood of taking an advanced course in math and science in middle school, and more than triples the likelihood of taking college credit-bearing courses in high school for English learners. We also find that these benefits are larger for foreign born students, students with higher latent human capital in third grade as proxied by their math scores, students whose first language is Spanish, and students in lower-poverty elementary schools.”

Huddleston, A. P. (2014). Achievement at whose expense? A literature review of test-based grade retention policies in U.S. schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(18).  Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The author uses Maxwell’s method of literature reviews for educational research to focus on literature relevant to test-based grade retention policies to make the following argument: although some studies have documented average gains in academic achievement through test-based grade retention, there is increasing evidence that these gains have occurred by limiting the educational opportunities for the most vulnerable of students. The author begins by briefly synthesizing research on high-stakes testing policies and teacher-based retention in general and then examines studies that have evaluated specific test-based retention policies in Chicago, Florida, New York City, Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin, and Louisiana. Drawing on Bourdieu and Passeron’s concept of reproduction in education, the author shows how testing policies have contributed to class selection and exclusion in U.S. schools. Short-term gains produced by test-based retention policies fade over time with students again falling behind but with a larger likelihood of dropping out of school. These unintended consequences are most prevalent among ethnic minority and impoverished students. The author concludes by providing alternatives for ending social promotion that do not include grade retention as well as suggestions for further researching the role such policies play in perpetuating class inequities.”

Martorell, P., & Mariano, L. T. (2017). The causal effects of grade retention on behavioral outcomes. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 11(2), 192–216. Retrieved from and related policy brief from

From the abstract: “Requiring a failing student to repeat a grade is, of course, not a novel idea. The theory behind test-based promotion policies is that students who fail to demonstrate a sufficient understanding of their current grade’s curriculum lack the prerequisite proficiency to fully engage in the following grade. This view recognizes the cumulative nature of the curriculum across grades. However, very little causal evidence exists on whether grade retention generates negative behavioral outcomes. This study examines the impact of grade retention under a comprehensive student promotion policy instituted by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE). Building off earlier work that examined impacts on test scores, the current study aims to examine effects on various measures of behavioral outcomes using a quasi-experimental regression discontinuity research design.”

McCombs, J. S., Kirby, S. N., & Mariano, L. T. (Eds.). (2009). Ending social promotion without leaving children behind: The case of New York City. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Many states and school districts are implementing test-based requirements for promotion at key transitional points in students’ schooling careers, thus ending the practice of ‘social promotion’—promoting students who have failed to meet academic standards and requirements for that grade. In 2003–2004, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), which oversees the largest public school system in the country, implemented a new test-based promotion policy for 3rd-grade students and later extended it to 5th, 7th, and 8th graders. The policy emphasized early identification of children at risk of being retained in grade and provision of instructional support services to these students. NYCDOE asked RAND to conduct an independent longitudinal evaluation of the 5th-grade promotion policy and to examine the outcomes for two cohorts of 3rd-grade students. The findings of that study, conducted between March 2006 and August 2009, provide a comprehensive picture of how the policy was implemented and factors affecting implementation; the impact of the policy on student academic and socioemotional outcomes; and the links between the policy’s implementation and the outcomes of at-risk students.”

Robinson-Cimpian, J. P. (2015). Review of “The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “A recent NBER [National Bureau of Economic Research] working paper examines Florida’s policy to retain many low-scoring third graders. The report concludes that third-grade retention has immediate positive effects on the following year’s test results, but these effects fade over the next six years, with no effect on graduation. The regression discontinuity methods used to estimate the effects, comparing students immediately above and below the law’s cut-score, are generally good for making causal claims. But there is a serious shortcoming in the design—namely, the law requires that students below the cut-score receive intensive extra services intended to raise their subsequent achievement, and this applies to those retained and those promoted. This means the researchers do not know if these positive outcomes for those below the cut-score were due to the greater likelihood of retention or to the assurance of additional services. Also, two-thirds of students who fall below the cut-off score are nonetheless promoted because they fall into exception categories. Finally, the researchers exacerbate outcome differences by using an Instrumental Variable approach, which attributes the entire above/below-threshold difference to just retained students, effectively making the outcome difference appear more than three times as large. Because the policy stipulates that promoted students below the threshold also receive extra services that promoted students above the threshold do not receive, the IV approach is inappropriate. Even setting aside these problems, the study has extremely limited generalizability, restricted to students at or very near the threshold and directly affected by the policy. These and other problems call into serious question any causal claims of the longer-term effects and any policy utility for the report.”

REL West note: The Schwerdt study reviewed here also is included in this memo.

Roderick, M., & Nagaoka, J. (2005). Retention under Chicago's high-stakes testing program: Helpful, harmful, or harmless? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27, 309–340. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In the mid-1990s, the Chicago Public Schools declared an end to social promotion and instituted promotional requirements based on standardized test scores in the third, sixth, and eighth grades. This article examines the experience of third and sixth graders who were retained under Chicago’s policy from 1997 to 2000. The authors examine the progress of these students for 2 years after they were retained and estimate the short-term effects of retention on reading achievement. Students who were retained under Chicago’s high-stakes testing policy continued to struggle during their retained year and faced significantly increased rates of special education placement. Among third graders, there is no evidence that retention led to greater achievement growth 2 years after the promotional gate. Among sixth graders, there is evidence that retention was associated with lower achievement growth. The effects of retention were estimated by using a growth curve analysis. Comparison groups were constructed by using variation across time in the administration of the policy, and by comparing the achievement growth of a group of low-achieving students who just missed passing the promotional cutoff to a comparison group of students who narrowly met the promotional cutoff at the end of the summer. The robustness of the findings was tested using an instrumental variable approach to address selection effects in estimates.”

Schwerdt, G., West, M. R., & Winters, M. A. (2017). The effects of test-based retention on student outcomes over time: Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida (NBER Working Paper No. 21509). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Many American states require that students lacking basic reading proficiency after third grade be retained and remediated. We exploit a discontinuity in retention probabilities under Florida’s test-based promotion policy to study its effects on student outcomes through high school. We find large positive effects on achievement that fade out entirely when retained students are compared to their same-age peers, but remain substantial through grade 10 when compared to students in the same grade. Being retained in third grade due to missing the promotion standard increases students’ grade point averages and leads them to take fewer remedial courses in high school but has no effect on their probability of graduating.”

West, M. R. (2012). Is retaining students in the early grades self-defeating? (CCF brief #49). Washington, DC: Center on Children and Families at Brookings. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Whether a child is a proficient reader by the third grade is an important indicator of their future academic success. Indeed, substantial evidence indicates that unless students establish basic reading skills by that time, the rest of their education will be an uphill struggle. This evidence has spurred efforts to ensure that all students receive high-quality reading instruction in and even before the early grades. It has also raised the uncomfortable question of how to respond when those efforts fail to occur or prove unsuccessful: Should students who have not acquired a basic level of reading proficiency by grade three be promoted along with their peers? Or should they be retained and provided with intensive interventions before moving on to the next grade? Several states and school districts have recently enacted policies requiring that students who do not demonstrate basic reading proficiency at the end of third grade be retained and provided with remedial services. Similar policies are under debate in state legislatures around the nation. Although these policies aim to provide incentives for educators and parents to ensure that students meet performance expectations, they can also be expected to increase the incidence of retention in the early grades. Their enactment has therefore renewed a longstanding debate about retention’s consequences for low-achieving students. Critics point to a massive literature indicating that retained students achieve at lower levels, are more likely to drop out of high school, and have worse social-emotional outcomes than superficially similar students who are promoted. Yet the decision to retain a student is typically made based on subtle considerations involving ability, maturity, and parental involvement that researchers are unable to incorporate into their analyses. As a result, the disappointing outcomes of retained students may well reflect the reasons they were held back in the first place rather than the consequences of being retained. Recent studies that isolate the causal impact of retaining low-achieving students cast further doubt on the conventional view that retention leads to negative outcomes. Much of this work has focused on Florida, which since 2003 has required that many third graders scoring at the lowest performance level on the state reading test be retained and provided with intensive remediation. Students retained under Florida’s test-based promotion policy perform at higher levels than their promoted peers in both reading and math for several years after repeating third grade; they are also less likely to be retained in a subsequent grade. Although it is too soon to analyze the policy’s effects on students’ ultimate educational attainment and labor-market success, this new evidence suggests that policies encouraging the retention and remediation of struggling readers can be a useful complement to broader efforts to reduce the number of students reading below grade level.”

Xia, N., & Kirby, H. (2009). Retaining students in grade: A literature review of the effects of retention on students’ academic and nonacademic outcomes. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Grade retention is the practice of keeping low-achieving students at the same grade level for an additional year to provide them with extra time to catch up, as opposed to social promotion, the practice of promoting students regardless of whether they have mastered the grade content. As part of an increasing emphasis on standards and accountability, many districts now use standardized test scores as one of the main criteria for grade retention. However, studies have shown that students do not appear to benefit from being retained and, indeed, that retention may increase their risk of dropping out of school. In 2003–2004, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) implemented a new promotion policy for 3rd-grade students, which was later extended to 5th, 7th, and 8th graders. NYCDOE asked RAND to conduct an independent longitudinal evaluation to provide evidence of the program’s impact on 5th graders. This report, one of in a series documenting the results of the study (conducted between March 2006 and August 2009) identifies and reviews 91 studies that examine the effect of grade retention on a variety of student academic and socioemotional outcomes.”

Other Organizations to Consult

Education Commission of the States (ECS) –

From the website: “Education Commission of the States partners with education policy leaders to address issues by sharing resources and expertise.”

REL West note: Three publications by ECS are relevant to this request, as follows:

Diffey, L. (2016). Retention policies and interventions (state information request). Retrieved from

Rose, S., & Schimke, K. (2012). Third grade literacy policies: Identification, intervention, retention. Retrieved from

Workman, E. (2014). Third-grade reading policies. Reading/literacy: Preschool to third grade. Retrieved from

Helios Education Foundation –

From the website: “Helios Education Foundation is dedicated to creating opportunities for individuals in Arizona and Florida to succeed in postsecondary education. As a result, we strategically partner to ensure more students are academically prepared at every stage of the education continuum—from early learning through postsecondary education—and ultimately, graduate college and career ready. Committed to the success of all students, we are also working to embed a college-going culture across both states which emphasizes and facilitates the successful completion of a postsecondary license, certificate or degree for every student, leading to meaningful career opportunities and a high quality of life. As our work has developed over the past decade, we have focused our efforts on specific statewide strategies in both Arizona and Florida.”

REL West note: Two publications by Helios Education Foundation are relevant to this request, as follows:

Dunn, L., Castillo, P. & Vince, S. (2016). Move On When Reading: Implementation of a third grade retention policy in Arizona. Retrieved from

Miller, B. (n.d.). Lessons from Florida’s third grade reading retention policy and implications for Arizona. Retrieved from

Literacy Research

From the website: “The Literacy Research Association (LRA) is a non-profit professional organization, comprised of individuals who share an interest in advancing literacy theory, research, and practice. We are a community that engages in research and dialogue pertaining to literacy and related topics. We support the professional development of emerging and established scholars. We advocate research-informed improvements in education. We seek engagement with high-quality research and discussions of important theoretical, methodological, practice and policy issues.”

REL West note: One publication by LRA is relevant to this request, as follows:

Dennis, D. V., Kroeger, D. C., O’Byrne, W. I., Meyer, C. K., Kletzein, S. B., Huddleston, A., & Gilrane, C. (n.d.). Test-based grade retention: A policy brief of the Literacy Research Association. Retrieved from

National Conference of State Legislatures –

From the website: “National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is committed to the success of all legislators and staff. Our mission is to

  • Improve the quality and effectiveness of state legislatures
  • Promote policy innovation and communication among state legislatures
  • Ensure state legislatures a strong, cohesive voice in the federal system.”

REL West note: One publication by NCSL is relevant to this request, as follows:

Weyer, M. (2018). A look at third-grade reading retention policies. Retrieved from

Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) –

From the website: “The Southern Regional Education Board works with states to improve public education at every level, from early childhood through doctoral education. We help policymakers make informed decisions by providing independent, accurate data and recommendations. We help educators strengthen student learning with professional development, proven practices and curricula. And we help policymakers, institutions and educators share scarce resources to accomplish more together than they could alone.”

REL West note: One publication by SREB is relevant to this request, as follows:

Durrance, S. (2018). Ready to read, ready to succeed: State policies that support fourth grade reading success (updated). Retrieved from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

“Third grade retention” OR “social promotion”

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published since 2000, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.